Recently I attended an audience with children’s writer, Jacqueline Wilson at the beautiful Tyne Theatre and Opera house in Newcastle. The audience comprised almost entirely of 8-15 year old girls and their adult companions. I was probably the only unaccompanied adult. So why was I there?
I’d heard Jacqueline Wilson speak five or six years ago whilst studying for my MA in Writing for Children at the University of Central Lancashire and had been impressed by the ease at which she spoke about her writing and career, but particularly by the fact that, despite being one of the best known children’s book authors in the UK, having published over a hundred books for children, she remains approachable and down-to-earth. The overriding memory of the first talk I attended was her confession that every time she writes a new book, she worries whether it will be good enough for her readers. I was unpublished at the time and I found her honesty refreshing and reassuring.
On this occasion, Jacqueline seemed equally at ease with her audience. Without referring to any notes, she sat and talked about her career as a writer and her books for an hour before answering questions from the audience. I’m sure Jaqueline’s been asked some of those questions thousands of times before, but you would never have known by her responses. Each question was met with a nod, a pause for consideration and as full an answer as she could considering the time restraints.
So what did I take away from the experience this time? Firstly, that Jacqueline Wilson takes her role as an author seriously. While I firmly believe that although writers, like all creative artists, may be blessed with unique talent, talent alone is never enough for success. Her status as an author is the result of years of dedication, discipline and determination.
Jacqueline always knew she wanted to be a writer. She spoke of how as a child, when she told people of her ambition they would patronise her with a smile and say, “That’s nice.” She read voraciously and carried on writing throughout her school years; encouragement from a teacher at secondary level easing some of the hurt and disappointment caused by a setback experienced in primary. When she spoke of her primary teacher’s failure to recognise her talent, I was reminded of what I now regard as my first painful rejection. Mine was in early secondary. I’d written a story about a dog which died. I don’t remember details, but, in retrospect, I suspect it was probably an outpouring of grief at the death of my uncle’s dog, a miniature collie called Shaun which I loved as if he were mine. I was proud of my story and was devastated when I saw the low mark and read the teacher’s comment expressing her surprise at my ‘emotional guff.’ Fortunately my next English teacher encouraged my love of all things literary, rewarding my efforts with the role of editor of the school magazine in my final year.
But back to Jacqueline Wilson. Seeing an ad for an upcoming teenage magazine which requested teenagers to send romantic stories, Jacqueline took the calculated risk of sending a story which was not romantic, but was accepted. At the age of seventeen, she moved from London to Scotland and did whatever the magazine editors asked of her, penning ‘readers’ letters, and even horoscopes despite, as she readily admitted, having no relevant experience or knowledge. What she did have was unwavering determination and enterprise. This magazine was Jackie, which I and practically every teenage girl in 70’s Britain adored.
What stayed with me this time, however, was Jacqueline’s connection with her readers. I’ve no doubt every young girl in that theatre hall today went away feeling special. Those who managed to ask her a question would have felt particularly thrilled, whereas those who had hoped to, but weren’t chosen, no doubt felt a tinge of disappointment, but Jacqueline Wilson, had, by sharing her story with enthusiasm, humour and humility, connected with each and every one of them through a shared love of reading and, in some cases, writing.
When one girl asked if she’d considered writing about the effects of social media on teenagers, she replied that the thought had passed her mind, but as a technophobe, her knowledge and understanding was limited. She then made the audience laugh by admitting this is the reason her novels for younger readers are contemporary, whilst those for teenagers are set in Victorian times when there was no social media.
Jacqueline is compelled to write. People, she says, suggested that instead of writing two novels a year, she should take it easy and write just one. This proved an impossibility, as did her attempt to take a fortnight’s break from writing. After a week, she admitted, she gave in and just had to write. I like Jacqueline Wilson. I like her books. I like her work ethic and I like her personality. But above all I like her enthusiasm for reading and writing. We have a shared passion and that’s why I was there.